A dozen files, rusting at the hinges, contain Richard Crossman's Backbench Diaries. They are closely typed on heavy foolscap, interleaved with crumbling newspaper cuttings -- Crossman's weekly articles for the New Statesman, the Sunday Pictorial and, later, the Daily Mirror. These columns, on domestic and international politics and, for the Statesman, on books, were intellectually much alike whichever paper published them. Well-reasoned, closely argued, they were the product, in Crossman's own favourite phrase, of 'a bump of irreverence'. Stylistically, though, Crossman's contributions to the Statesman on the one hand the the Pictorial and Mirror on the other could not have been more different. For the thoughtful left-wing weekly, of which he had been an assistant editor since 1938, his sentences were longer, his allusions complex and his humour ironical. For the popular papers of the Mirror Group, whose star columnist he became in 1955, the sentences were short, his remarks blunt and his mockery direct.
Such facility for addressing people in whatever fashion would most quickly captivate and most painlessly inform them was arguably Crossman's greatest skill. He was primarily a teacher -- a philosophy don who could fill the hall at Oxford University, a memorable lecturer to the Workers' Educational Association in the late 1930s, a popular columnist in mass-circulation newspapers, the lucid exponent of a complicated superannuation scheme or of the intricacies of parliamentary procedure to his Cabinet colleagues ('who, for a moment, believed they understood it') and, at the end of his life, the confident amateur analyst, for the benefit of an enraptured crowd of children, of the workings of his swimming pool.
Many of his fellow politicians were-and remain-puzzled by Crossman's desire to unravel, explain and criticize. Some of them found it irritating; some, as the Backbench Diaries show, condemned him for it. This is not wholly surprising. To start with, Crossman was not naturally tactful. He would assume that all those he met enjoyed nothing better than to have their assumptions questioned and their arguments challenged. Civil servants who worked with him were not the only ones to feel that he wished life to be one long seminar. But if much of his aggressiveness stemmed from intellectual joie de vivre, some of it was camouflage for personal diffidence. Crossman was at his easiest with his family; he could enjoy the company of . . .